Tag Archives: learning

Celebrate the little things, because the little things are BIG

When you have a child for whom learning the ‘traditional’ way is not effective, you really begin to appreciate the little things that many parents of neurotypical kids (myself included) take for granted.  Both of my daughters have had little to no struggle with school, and have thrived in a bilingual program with the added intensity of a second language alongside the three ‘R’s’.  When Berrik was born the girls were already in preschool and kindergarten and were progressing along the typical trajectory developmentally and academically.  I assumed Berrik would be the same.  But as you know, his trajectory has been considerably different, with ups and downs that can likely only be fully understood by others who have a similar journey.  While I would give anything to remove the struggles that Berrik has endured, I am able to see the value in how it has created a resilient, empathetic little boy, and how it has reminded me that success comes in many forms.  For someone as naturally competitive as I am, you can imagine that this is both a necessary and important lesson for me.  One of the many these kids have provided me with over the years.

This week Berrik turned 10.  It’s hard to wrap my head around that number.  And the fact that he will soon be taller than me, which will leave me as the shortest member of our family as the girls have already surpassed me.  It’s been a fantastic week of celebration and success for my boy.  While these are things that many would take for granted in their 10 year old children, for us it’s a week of celebrating the little things, that are in fact so big that I get tears every time I think about them.

Let’s start with the birthday party.  Berrik has struggled with reading.  It has been nothing short of hours, days, months and years of multiple strategies to get this boy reading.  Sound Connections, homeschooling, my mom (I cannot emphasize how instrumental my mom has been on this reading journey), the best teachers in the best school for Berrik, daily reading, flash cards, sight words, phonics, and any trick I can think of to make reading enjoyable rather than a chore (incidentally, we are not there yet but I have hope that one day he will love to read like I do!)  But I digress.  At Berrik’s party as he opened his gifts he (without being told to) read every word on every card.  And he did this with relative ease.  Because he wanted to.  I think it may be the first time outside of reading instructions on video games that Berrik has voluntarily read a significant amount of text with very little help and no prompting.  This is such a huge step for him, and it’s these moments when I know that his potential is unlimited and the future will be bright.  I can say with honesty I had trouble imagining a day where he would do this voluntarily.  img_0413

One of Berrik’s gifts were two ‘lego-ish’ building set of Hello Neighbor – a bizarre nasty neighbor character that exists on youtube and video games.  He was excited to put it together.  For context, these sets have 90ish small pieces that go together in a specific order to create a little scene.  Just like lego, although technically not lego-brand.  Berrik was able to do this on his own by reading the directions and following them.  The dexterity required for this task was the most challenging – developmental coordination disorder means his fine motor skills are a bit delayed – but the following directions was not an issue.  This takes attention, and sequencing, and reading comprehension, and dexterity.  For kids like Berrik, these can all be difficult tasks individually, but having to manage all of that at the same time, and to start and finish the project, is big.  So big.  img_0466

In the moments where I lay awake at night wondering about the future for my kids, and especially for my sweet boy, these are the moments I need to hold on to.  They are the very clear signs that he can do anything and that with the support of this great big team we have, he will do whatever it is he wants to do.  Currently he would like to be an engineer like dad, a policeman/superhero, and also invent time travel.  Can’t wait to see which direction he goes with that! (I’m hoping for time travel).

Kids will do well…

“Kids will do well, if they can.”  This is a quote from Dr. Ross Greene, an American psychologist.  He believes that “Kids will do well if they want to” is a philosophy that is held by many, but he says it is wrong.  Dead wrong.  Think about it.  He’s right.  It makes so much sense.   He talks about rewarding kids for desired behaviour, and punishing undesired behaviour and how that method is based on the assumption that kids don’t want to do well, so therefore we need to make them want to by motivating them with positive and negative reinforcements.  When you consider that kids do well if they can, you then realize you need only to figure out what is getting in their way and work to remove those ba.

Obviously it’s not simple.  But it IS sensible.  At least from my perspective.  And we are living it.  Berrik struggled in a system that seems to be set up with the philosophy that kids will do well if they want to.  He was absolutely rewarded for desired behaviour (the very few times he exhibited the desired behaviour) and was regularly punished for undesirable behaviour.  There was many a conversation between myself and his teachers about medication – because medication would help him fit the system, ultimately.  (EDIT: Please note that I am not anti-medication to treat symptoms of ADHD (or anything else for that matter).  In our situation at that time, I didn’t feel like it was the best solution for Berrik and I was concerned that it was viewed as the ‘only solution’.  We each are living our experiences and those who have used medication as one of the strategies to help their child do well are doing what we are all doing – trying to allow our children to do well.) There were just as many conversations about reward systems, and removing of privileges. And I say this with no negative feelings towards the teachers. With the exception of one, Berrik’s teachers truly seemed to want to help Berrik achieve success. But with many many kids per class and extremely limited resources, it seemed the only way was to make the kids fit the system rather than have the system fit the kids.

Enter private school designed for kids who do not fit the system.  A school designed to allow the system to fit the kids.  A school where every single person from the Board to the school admin believe that the system should fit the kid, and that kids will do well if they can.  In Berrik’s case, he needs a little extra support to keep him on task.  He was speech delayed as a toddler and this still impacts him as well.  His developmental coordination disorder makes things like writing more challenging.  So, he works with the speech language pathologist weekly.  He works with the OT twice per week.  And his teachers are making accommodations that make it easier for him to do well.  Not surprisingly he is doing exceptionally well.  Because kids will do well if they can.

 

I was at the school’s annual AGM listening to one of the OTs and the family counsellor present about a new program that is being piloted this year.  They referenced Dr. Greene’s quote.  And they talked about developmental age vs. chronological age.  It really resonated with me and if I needed one more reason to know that I have my boy in the correct school for him, this was it.  Think about it.  Chronological age is a pretty arbitrary thing to use to determine things like school grade, ability to drive, ability to drink or smoke marijuana, etc. etc.   Think about the kids you know and all the different phases and stages of development.  Even amoung my own three kids, their developmental ages vs. chronological ages have varied by quite a bit.  My kids’ friends vary dramatically as well.  Take any handful of 12 year olds (or 15 year olds, or 3 year olds) and compare their developmental age.  Some are incredibly mature in some areas of their lives, and some are developmentally younger. McKenna didn’t walk until 19 months.  She never crawled. Her physical development was on the edge of what would be considered ‘normal’ and she was way behind her peers.  Wasn’t much we could do about it, so we just let it be. She’s a strong runner and a competitive dancer now.  Development happens when it happens and while it should progress, the rate at which it progresses varies and shouldn’t be labelled or used as a predictor of future ability.  What is important to note as well, is that kids may be developmentally more mature in one area of development and not in others.  Dr. Greene talks about this as well. If we pay attention to developmental age and give kids what they can handle based where they are developmentally, they will do well.  It’s not unlike giving a first year resident surgeon an incredibly complex surgery on her first case.  The outcome likely won’t be all that good.  Why are we surprised when we ask kids to perform tasks beyond their developmental ability and it doesn’t go well?  It often results in behaviors that we see as negative.  But actually it’s quite normal and the kid is not the problem.

So the next time you see a kid (or your own kid) behaving in a way that isn’t meeting your expectations, think about your expectations. Are they developmentally appropriate?  Stop comparing your kids to their peers.  Its not helpful or useful.  Meet kids where they are at, and they will do well. Because kids will do well if they can.

September is the new New Year

I often feel like September is more of a ‘new year’ than January, and this year I feel it more acutely than ever.  It’s the usual ‘new’ beginnings that come with the school year starting – it’s my oldest’s last first day of Junior High, my middle child’s first first day of Junior High, the beginning of dance season (that never really ended) and the beginning of choir season, karate, basketball, piano, which with the exception of piano, means the beginning of chauffeur season for me.   Its also back to seeing my dance mom friends a bit more regularly, and getting back to curling in one short month so I can see my curling friends weekly all winter – I saw them two times from end of curling season in March until now, so believe me when I say I am looking forward to curling season!

This year feels different than most because we are starting (yet another) new chapter with Berrik.  He is headed back to school.  Unexpectedly a spot opened up in a small private school, and luckily Berrik was chosen to fill that spot.  If you have a child with learning disabilities in a classroom of 27 kids (or maybe even if you have a neurotypical child in a classroom with 27 kids) you’ll appreciate my optimism and excitement when I tell you his class this year will have 10 children with one teacher and one teacher assistant.

We had the opportunity to meet with Berrik’s teachers and tour his classroom this past week.  Apparently this is something that all kids at the school have the opportunity to do. We had a scheduled time and it was just Berrik and I in the classroom.  We had the chance to really talk about Berrik and how he learns best.  Berrik got to hear about what a typical school day will look like, he got to sit in his desk, and check out some of the classroom ‘fun stuff’.   The school OT dropped by to meet Berrik and say hi.  She spent a bit of time chatting with him.  While I was talking with her, the school principal came by the classroom.  She was wearing a dress, but she sat right down on the floor anyways to look at the machine Berrik was building with K’nex.  I had met her previously, so she didn’t even speak to me.  She was clearly there for Berrik.  Any doubts or fears I may have had disappeared.

These people really seem to get it.  They get how important it is to have parents’ input.  They get how developing a strong relationship with the child is critical to the child’s success as a student.  They definitely seem to get how important all members of the learning team are to each student and family.  They get how overwhelming this can all be for families new to the school, and mitigate that through one on one attention and time to talk. This is the first time I have prepared to send my boy off to school and am doing so with excitement and basically no apprehension.

I always feel the need to defend teachers here.  I believe almost ALL teachers and school administrators ‘get it’ in terms of all the things I mentioned above.  The difference is that the public system doesn’t allow for this to happen on the scale  that it can happen in a small private school.

As a small aside, I recently watched this Ted Talk about Dyslexia & Privilege which really resonates with me, and I have often talked about how grateful I am that we are able to access resources for Berrik that many many others would not have the means to.  I have wondered many times how I could do something about this…  But that is another blog post entirely.

So today, on the official last day of summer for the kids, I sit here feeling grateful, excited, content, and hopeful.  I look forward to this year of more firsts, more adventures and more challenges too.    Given the natural disasters around the world in this moment, the craziness of the global political climate, and the stresses that many people in my life are facing every day right now, I choose to enjoy this moment and hope for a tomorrow filled with good news.

 

Early Literacy, Invented Spelling and Confidence – what’s the connection?

Over the weekend I was sent an article about a recent study that suggests a direct correlation between invented spelling and literacy.  You can read more about the study here.

invented spellingTo back it up a step or two, invented spelling is the process by which kids will ‘invent’ spellings for words based on what they know about letters and phonetics.  Over time and with more exposure to phonetic rules, practice, and scaffolded spelling instruction, these invented spellings will become closer and closer to the conventional spelling.

The study suggests that kids who are allowed and encouraged to ‘invent’ spelling will more easily and more successfully develop an ability to retrieve these words for future reading and writing.

“Children who used invented spelling developed stronger reading skills over time, regardless of their existing vocabulary, alphabetic knowledge, or word reading skills.”

The rationale for this (which makes COMPLETE sense to me, based on my experiences with Berrik and what I have learned about neuroplasticity) is as follows:

“When inventing a spelling, the child is engaged in mental reflection and practice with words, not just memorizing. This strategy strengthens neuronal pathways so as the reader/writer becomes more sophisticated with invented spelling, she or he is developing a repertoire of more and more correctly spelled words at the same time. These words are stored in the word form area of the brain where the child can retrieve them automatically as sight words for reading and eventually as correctly spelled words for writing.”

school photoAlso interesting to note is an 18 month study published in 2010 by the Harvard School of Education comparing child development to Gesell’s “Developmental Schedules” from 1925, 1949, 1964, and 1979, which suggests that kids today are not meeting cognitive milestones any earlier than they were in the 1920s.  Yet in kindergarten the expectations have grown considerably from play-based, to high expectations with regard to reading, writing and math.  We are pushing many kids to do things for which they are not developmentally ready.   There are numerous studies that suggest that pushing kids to do too much too soon might actually cause more harm than good over the longer term, from academic, social and emotional development perspectives.  Here is a review of several of those studies.

So, you might ask….  why did I jump from a discussion of invented spelling and literacy to studies about pushing kids academically before they are ready?  Because for us (and I suspect many, many others) they are directly related.  Berrik was not ready for school when I put him in school.  This was my error.  I made the wrong call.  Hindsight is 20/20. Whatever.  Live and learn.  I put Berrik in a second year of kindergarten.  That was a better call as opposed to pushing him on to Grade 1 when he wasn’t ready.  But really, it was pretty much too late by then.  I didn’t know it at the time.  Hindsight -so hopelessly unhelpful, except when we can share our experiences in hopes that others will learn from them…and because I have learned from it and am doing everything I can to reverse the damage I caused through well-intentioned, but still incorrect decision making.

Here’s why I think entering school before a kid is ready is problematic.  Regardless of age, Berrik was not ready developmentally.  This resulted in an extreme lack of confidence. As he got older he became more and more aware of how others perceived him.  He began to think he was stupid.  He was treated differently by the adults, and therefore the kids treated him differently too.  What does this have to do with invented spelling? school photo1 Let me tell you.  If you feel as though everything you do is wrong, it’s pretty tough to have enough confidence to take a risk and attempt to write a word.  If you have weekly spelling tests that you are not developmentally ready for and understand that you are only getting 3/10 which means you are a failure and you must be stupid because your classmates are getting 9/10, even though you actually know how to spell the words, but you just don’t have enough time to write them down, then you are not going to take risks on ‘inventing’ spelling.  This time last year, my sweet boy was beaten down.  He had zero confidence.  He wouldn’t even attempt to write.  We didn’t even try to make him write for several months.  But let me tell you, his confidence has been growing and growing.  He invents spelling and we don’t correct it as long as he has all the phonetic sounds.  We do sightwords and we learn the rules of phonetics and he has the confidence to attempt to apply those rules when he’s writing.  Over time his invented spelling has become closer and closer to conventional spelling most of the time.  His reading has improved tremendously as a result.  His speech has exploded – words he used to pronounce incorrectly have resolved because he knows the spelling of them, so he knows its a ‘th’ sound not an ‘f’ sound (for example).

I recently overheard someone talking about people who ‘hold their kids back’ for kindergarten (with reference to kids with fall birthdays) and he thought it was possibly to give those kids an advantage in future school sports.  I was a bit floored by that rationale.  I think it’s much more likely that those parents know their own children and felt they just weren’t ready for the academic rigors of kindergarten in these times. Perhaps there are parents who would be thinking about their child’s future advantage in school sports, but I’m guessing the majority are making these decisions from a developmental perspective and wanting to give their children more time to play and develop before they begin their structured academic career.

My point is that age is just a number.  Kids develop at different paces.  I know kids who are 13 months younger than my daughters in the same class, or kids the same age a full grade ahead.  They are doing fine.  Some are excelling.  I also have a friend who decided her son with a fall birthday wasn’t ready for kindergarten when he was 4 years and 10 months, so she let him have one more year at home.  He is in grade 4 and just published his first book.  Seriously.  She knew her kid.  She made a good call.  Let your kids’ development guide your decision making.  It can make such a difference.

Homeschooling has allowed us to back up the train, as it were, and allow Berrik’s literacy to develop naturally.  Sound Connections continues to give us the tools to do this and it’s working.  His confidence is high and that is translating to all school subjects.  He’s willing to take risks and that is exactly what a strong learner does.  But oh, if I could turn back the clock and remake some decisions – I surely would.  We have had much heartbreak and struggles, and I often wonder if those experiences will impact Berrik for life.  This parenting gig is a tough one.  Trust your gut people.  And if it doesn’t work out the way you expect it to, then do what you need to do to get the train back on the track.  None of it is easy, but it’s all worth it.

 

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